Work stress: what it is and how to manage it

Work pressure can be a usual part of your job, between meeting tight deadlines, dealing with stakeholders, and trying to juggle it all. But what happens when this pressure becomes too much and results in work stress? We investigate.

For most of us, although challenging, work pressure is just part and parcel of working life. But what happens when it becomes work stress and starts to disrupt your life and how you’re feeling?

What is work stress?

Work stress, as the name implies, is stress that can be brought on by your job or workplace. While it’s normal and even sometimes beneficial to feel a bit of work pressure, you may be experiencing work stress when you have demands at work that exceed your ability to cope with them. 

We look at some common work stress symptoms, the common causes of stress in the workplace and provide some tips on how to deal with pressure at work.

Work stress symptoms 

Work pressure and work stress aren’t things that can be completely avoided, but like most things in life, they can be managed. To start to manage work pressure and work stress, it’s important to recognise work stress symptoms as this can help you pinpoint your work stress triggers and help you act to make things better. 

So how do you know if you’re experiencing work stress or work pressure? 

Everyone is different and will react to work stress and work pressure differently, so work stress symptoms can vary. However here are some common symptoms to look out for.

Emotional work stress symptoms:

  • feeling you can't cope
  • finding it hard to concentrate and remember things
  • lacking confidence
  • not feeling motivated or committed
  • feeling disappointed with yourself
  • indecisiveness
  • discouragement
  • pessimism
  • feeling depressed
  • feeling anxious
  • feeling more emotional than usual – you might be more tearful or particularly sensitive
  • feeling irritable, or having a short temper
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • mood swings
  • feeling tense

Physical work stress symptoms:

  • feeling tired, lacking energy, or experiencing fatigue
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • aches and pains
  • hot flushes
  • heart palpitations
  • muscular tension
  • indigestion and nausea
  • headaches
  • skin issues such as acne
  • putting on, or losing weight
  • chest pains or tightness in your chest
  • losing the desire to have sex
  • eating more or less than usual
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • isolating yourself from others
  • drinking alcohol at risky levels
  • smoking or taking illegal drugs to try to relax

It might be hard to attribute these symptoms of stress to work specifically. Other signs that work may be the cause of stress include:

  • often rushing to get things done or meet deadlines
  • displaying irritable or inconsistent behaviour
  • trying to be in too many places at once
  • taking on too many responsibilities
  • not taking breaks or missing meals
  • taking work home or working late at night
  • not having enough time to exercise or relax
  • spending less time with family
  • not taking your full holiday entitlement
  • working longer hours

Some days, work may be more stressful than others, so it’s important not to overreact to small changes in your behaviour. But if you feel consistently stressed for a while, for example, longer than two weeks, seek help. Read this article to learn about 9 signs that stress is getting to be too much.

Woman working on her computer in bed feeling stressed

Causes of stress in the work place

It’s one thing to know work pressure symptoms and work stress symptoms, but it’s another to know what’s causing them. It can be helpful to know where your work stress is coming from so you can focus your de-stressing efforts. Here are some common causes of stress in the workplace:
  • an excessive workload or unrealistic deadlines
  • long working hours
  • difficult relationships with colleagues
  • poor management
  • having too much or too little to do
  • a lack of control in your working environment
  • being unclear about your job role and what you’re meant to do
  • bullying at work
  • being under pressure to meet deadlines
  • being in the wrong job for your skills, abilities and expectations
Sometimes there’s no single cause of work stress. It might happen if small things build up over time, or due to a mix of things in both your work and personal life.

How to deal with pressure at work

You know you’re stressed, and you know why you’re stressed – now what? There are lots of ways you can help reduce the negative impact of work stress. 

Helping yourself

You might find it helps to discuss any issues you have with your manager or colleagues, who might have their own tips for stress relief at work. Here is a list of our top tips:  

  1. Make your working environment as comfortable to work in as you can. If it isn't, talk to someone to make some changes and make the space your own.
  2. Try to develop good relationships with your colleagues – this can help to create a support network at work.
  3. Learn to say no if you can't take on extra work or responsibility – make sure you’re able to explain why.
  4. Take a walk or get some fresh air during the day – exercise and daylight can be good for both your mental and physical health and are easy options for quick stress relief at work.
  5. Eat a balanced diet, with lots of fruit and vegetables, and drink enough water.
  6. Try not to drink too much alcohol – drinking too much is likely to make you feel worse and more stressed in the long run.
  7. Work regular hours and take the breaks you're entitled to – it’s important to take time off work.
  8. Maintain a healthy work life balance. Don’t neglect your family or relationships outside of work.
  9. Accept the things you can’t change and concentrate on the things you have control over.
  10. Develop a positive thinking style – try to look at a problem differently or talk about it with someone.
  11. Do some regular exercise to help reduce stress. It can reduce stress hormones and stimulate the release of hormones, called endorphins, which make you feel good. 
  12. Learn some relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, meditation or mindfulness, to help you relax and manage stressful situations. Find some helpful meditation podcasts here.
  13. Go on leave! There’s a reason employees are allowed to take some days off – it will allow you to recharge and feel refreshed.
Try out some different methods so you can find the ones that fit your lifestyle, work, and personality. There’s no one approach to stress relief at work as everyone is different, so be sure to focus on what works for you.
Workers de-stress with some exercises in the park at lunch

Support from your employer

It can be hard to admit to being stressed at work, perhaps for fear that your employer or colleagues will think less of you. But work stress can happen to anyone and it’s not a sign that you’re weak. Good employers will be aware of stress-related issues and many have policies in place to help deal with them.

If you feel stressed or anxious at work, talk to someone you trust about what upsets you or what makes you feel stressed. It's important to talk directly to your manager if you’re stressed because of work, as they have a duty to help you resolve the problem or cause. Explain how you're feeling and discuss your workload. If you feel you're being bullied or harassed at work, speak to your manager or your company's human resources department. Most companies have policies in place to deal with this type of problem. 

Many companies will be actively engaged in work stress management initiatives, but if there’s something else stressing you out, it’s important to flag the issue. It’s also a legal responsibility of all companies to provide a safe working environment for their staff, which includes looking after their mental health and wellbeing. 

Some corporate health plans offer wellness programs, including the Bupa health plan. Find out if your business is covered here.

Talking therapies

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking treatment that can help reduce anxiety and work stress. It looks at how situations can lead to thoughts that affect your feelings and behaviour. It aims to change the way you think and behave and helps you to challenge negative thoughts or feelings. 

Complementary therapies

If you become stressed easily or often feel anxious, it can help to learn how to reduce these feelings and how to relax. Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises and meditation, may help you unwind, although more research is needed to show if they really do reduce stress.

Progressive muscle relaxation usually just takes 10 minutes and can be done anywhere, without the need for trainers or special equipment.
Yoga and Pilates may also help to reduce stress and anxiety. They can help relieve muscle pains and teach you how to control your breathing in stressful situations. 

Although there isn’t enough evidence to tell if complementary therapies work, it might be worth giving them a go to see if they are indeed effective ways to relieve stress at work. There’s anecdotal evidence that they can help people relax. Massage and aromatherapy can promote a sense of wellbeing and provide a relaxing environment that may help you unwind.  

Stressed work mates drink wine on a work break
Alcohol for stress relief?

Alcohol can make you feel more relaxed in the short term and may seem like a great way to find stress relief. But if you drink more than the recommended amount regularly, it can lead to a range of health and social problems. Drinking too much is likely to make you feel worse and more stressed in the long run.

An occasional drink with colleagues after work or when you get home can help you unwind. But when it turns into a nightly, stress-relieving habit, it can become a problem. Over time, heavy drinking interferes with chemicals in your brain that affects your mood. Drinking regularly can add to feelings of depression and anxiety, and can make stress harder to deal with over time.

There are lots of alternatives to drinking alcohol to help reduce your stress levels. For ideas on how to cut down, see these six ways to unwind alcohol free. If you feel you’re drinking too much or are becoming reliant on alcohol to help you cope with work-related stress, speak to your GP. They can give you some advice on cutting down, or refer you to services that can help you.
Work stress is a part of life most of us will deal with from time to time. But learning the right ways to cope (for you) can help make your daily grind a little more enjoyable.

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